Poverty Lit

Sunday, March 18, 2007


A Novel

By Daniel Mason

Knopf. 268 pp. $24

Daniel Mason's evocative first novel, The Piano Tuner, published in 2002 when he was still a medical student at the University of California, told the story of a musician traveling into the Burmese jungle to find a mysterious military officer. His new novel, A Far Country, is another story of searching for someone in a distant place, but this time the exotic locale is never named, the theme is reduced to numbing clarity, and the characters are meant to represent millions of people in similar circumstances.

The far country of the title is a desperately poor Catholic nation, where wealthy landowners murder squatters who have nowhere else to go and unrelenting drought pushes peasant farmers to eat insects. Mason's heroine is a shy, clairvoyant 14-year-old girl named Isabel. "Her body isn't closed," Mason tells us, which means "there was less of a barrier between this world and the other one." If you have a low tolerance for magical realism, don't worry: It quickly fades away here in favor of a flatter, rather static lament about the plight of The Poor (wherever they may be) at the hands of The Rich (you know who you are).

Isabel's father works in the sugarcane fields, but the older brother she idolizes dreams of making his living as a musician in the capital, a place of almost mythical promise: "In the city, families put their maid's children through school, babies are bigger. In the city, the poor are rich, minimum-wagers are kings. The men don't cheat you in the city, they aren't powerless, they don't drown themselves in drink, they don't hit. The women don't get old before their time. In the city, if you are thirsty there are fountains." (Spoiler alert for readers who have never been to a city: These peasants have a somewhat rosy impression of it.)

After several crippling seasons of drought, Isabel's musical brother defies their father and strikes out for this land of opportunity. During infrequent phone calls -- taken at the town's only telephone -- he reports that he's doing well. He even sends back some money. And so when her parents finally run out of hummingbird meat and cactus roots, they send Isabel on a perilous bus ride to live with a cousin in the vast and ghastly Settlement that has developed around the city.

While her cousin works as a maid during the week, Isabel takes care of her baby, watches street crimes and wanders around looking for her brother. "Mostly," though, "she lay on the bed and stared at the ceiling, watching the room fill with light and later with darkness." For about 200 pages. Oh, there are moments of potential plot development that may fool you into reading on -- a job as a campaign worker, a trip to the Department of Missing Persons, a budding romance with a photographer -- but they're all cheats; they never lead anywhere. Despite many passages of beautiful writing, the novel suffers from an aimless plot, characters almost as abstract as the setting, and languid moralizing about the tragedy of poverty.

Fans of The Piano Tuner, take note: This new novel strikes the same chord over and over again.

--Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company